Hometown: Bay Area, California

Project: (H)afrocentric,” a comic book series and strip based on the exploits of Naima and Miles Pepper, two Black siblings, and their friends of color at the fictional Ronald Reagan University. The comics tackle racism, gentrification, activist culture and more with levity and humor.

Why You Should Care: After spending several years teaching community college students about social injustice and activism, Smith is using “(H)afrocentric,” to go beyond classrooms. 

Smith, who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, first caught the academia bug as a student and college basketball player at the University of California (U.C.), Riverside. She took a class with ethnic studies scholar Dylan Rodriguez that she says influenced her understanding on social justice and education.

“[His class] gave me a language to understand the world around me,” she says. “It’s not that I didn’t know that these things existed, it’s just that I really couldn’t articulate my feelings. Learning about the prison industrial complex and Black radical tradition inspired me to read more. As an educator, that’s the greatest hope—that you leave your students with the desire to pursue knowledge on their own.”

Hoping to do the same for other students of color, Smith earned a masters degree in ethnic studies at the U.C. San Diego. “It was always clear to me that I would become a community college professor,” she notes. “Even though I was exposed to this somewhat radical education, that felt like an exclusive experience. I wanted to be surrounded by communities of color and working-class people, and make sure people knew that you didn’t have to go to a U.C. school to learn these things.”

Smith taught at several institutions throughout California, including Laney College in Oakland. She assigned the “Real Cost of Prisons Comix” in a mass incarceration unit after realizing students didn’t gravitate towards other essays on the syllabus. “It’s a three-part series dedicated to breaking down the prison-industrial complex,” she described. “After I gave that to my students, they started coming to my office hours and telling me that they were giving it to their family members. The fact that students did that shifted the way that I thought about comics and inspired me to create my own.”

Smith began working on “(H)afrocentric” in 2010. She created the comic as a form of catharsis for the pressures of her academic career, which she ultimately left before getting to use the project in her own classrooms. “It was very difficult to make a living as an adjunct professor, and I’ll just leave it at that,” she says about the end of her professorial career.

Photo: Provided to Colorlines by Artist